USA Hockey unveiled the roster that will go to Sochi after the Winter Classic mercifully concluded on New Years Day. When these type of teams are put together they always invite critical reviews of the final roster. The final selections are usually going to come down to preferences of the selection committee as much as the merits of the players under consideration given how talented the pool of candidates collectively are.
The American hockey roster is missing three players who are pretty blatant snubs. Bobby Ryan, Dustin Byfuglien, and Keith Yandle should all be on this roster. Several others could have cases made for them, but these three stick out horribly.
Not only are those three glaring omissions, but two articles from reporters essentially embedded with the roster selection committee highlight the arguments for and against these three. Kevin Allen of USA Today and Scott Burnside of ESPN penned the pieces which are full of discussion-worthy topics. And believe me, we will get to them all. (Jack Johnson will not go without mention.)
Bobby Ryan is first on the docket. In the Allen story Florida Panthers General Manager Dale Tallon offers a completely reasonable take on Ryan:
"I think you need Ryan to score that goal against the teams to qualify," Tallon said. "Those are going to be tight, low-scoring games. You need someone to break one open. That's what he does."
Ryan scores goals. In his four full seasons before the lockout-shortened 2013 season, Ryan averaged 33 goals per year while never dipping below 31 or going over 35. He is the definition of a consistent goal scorer. The only better scorer on the roster is Phil Kessel. You would think the second-best goal scorer the nation has to offer would be a lock, but that is not the case.
The Burnside piece starts listing the concerns the committee has about Ryan:
The issue is where he fits. If he's not a top-six forward, his skating doesn't really lend itself to him being a third-line checker. He cannot kill penalties, and while in Anaheim, he was not on the team's top power-play unit.
"I think he's sleepy. I think he skates sleepy," offers one member of the selection committee.
This is one of the arguments presented in these pieces that simply makes no sense. Why is anyone worried about Ryan having the game necessary to be a third-line checker? He isn't a checking forward. He's a goal scorer. The power play is another issue that came up repeatedly with Ryan. This gem was attributed to now ex-Flyers coach Peter Laviolette in Allen's piece:
Laviolette said the coaches have Ryan on their power play list, but the coaches have been tracking power play points "and he's probably one of the lowest power play percentage points guy we have."
For one, when the article mentions that coaches are tracking power play points I genuinely hope they spent about five seconds on that task given all of that information is readily available here, where Ryan is 20th in the NHL in powerplay goals (and 7th among American forwards).
Secondly, I hope they recognized that power play scoring on it's own isn't going to tell them much since they need to factor in power play minutes, teammates, and PDO among other things. The Burnside line stating that Ryan wasn't on the top power play unit in Anaheim is factually accurate but also misleading. The Ducks also employed Teemu Selanne, Ryan Getzlaf, and Corey Perry. That extra detail makes Ryan's presence on the second unit make quite a bit more sense.
In Allen's story, Poile compares Ryan with Brandon Saad, who also missed the cut:
"Bobby Ryan is like the hare is out there running and he might do something real good for a while but can't stick (with) it," Poile said. "Brandon Saad is the tortoise. He is probably the steadiest of them."
Thirty goals a year seems fairly steady to me.
Byfuglien and Yandle were not selected for similar reasons. Byfuglien was a lightning rod in the discussions. He had supporters in Stan Bowman and Dale Tallon who noted his positive locker room presence:
"Guys gravitate toward him," Bowman said. "Guys like him and he can play hockey and he can play at a (weight) number that would surprise you."
But it (obviously) wasn't all pretty:
"We don't yet know who the best players are," Poile says. "Can we trust Byfuglien to play in this tournament?"
If there are injuries, is he the kind of guy who could move up and play in the top six?
"Can we trust him?" Poile wonders aloud.
Or do they need a more consistent player?
Tallon, for one, doesn't think they need both Yandle and Byfuglien.
"You know I'm not a big Byfuglien guy," Burke notes. But he seems to have committed himself to being in better shape and improving his game. "And no one can pound the puck like him," he adds.
The group's Man On The Prairie, Don Waddell, warns that early on Byfuglien has struggled.
Yes, he's an offensive presence but, "If he's going to have to play minutes defensively, boy, right now he's a high-risk guy," Waddell says.
The braintrusts behind the former Atlanta Thrashers, Nashville Predators, and Florida Panthers feel that Byfuglien's defense is poor enough to make him a liability in defensive situations in the Olympics "against the top players in the world".
The Winnipeg Jets must disagree completely. Byfuglien sees one of the higher levels of competition in the league and takes the lowest percentage of offensive zone starts among the Jets defensemen. All he does is lead the Jets defensive corps in Corsi to go with 29 points in 42 games.
Tyler Dellow also pointed this out:
Byfuglien has an .887 SV% behind him so far this year. Add his Olympic candidacy to the Jets playoff hopes on "Things Pavelec Wrecked."— mc79hockey (@mc79hockey) January 1, 2014
Blame Ondrej Pavelec, Brian Burke, and Byfuglien's weight I guess.
The Yandle snub is directly related to his defensive ability, but he did have a huge supporter in Kings GM Dean Lombardi.
Los Angeles Kings GM Dean Lombardi, who sees Yandle often in the Western Conference, lobbied for him. "The kid is underrated," he said. "The kid is tough. The kid often gets pushed aside and I don't understand why."
It's an interesting question. Yandle has done nothing but produce offensively since entering the league. He has 200 points in his last 333 NHL games. He is an excellent puck mover who would seem to be an ideal fit for a large international rink. And he won't be in Sochi.
Lombardi was so staunchly in Yandle's corner that he reportedly put a large report together about the "fringe" defensemen for the roster that touted Yandle heavily. He had many points to make.
"Yandle is clearly the only guy that I would consider for this team. I started this trying to figure out why the kid isn't basically amongst the top six," Lombardi says.
Because the central knock on Yandle is that he's not responsible enough defensively, Lombardi says he focused on situations in which this might be revealed in Yandle's game and how the same assessment might be applied to the other candidates.
There is no question, he says, that Yandle is the superior puck-mover and uses a combination of superior skating and passing ability to move the puck quickly up the rink.
He is the highest-scoring American defenseman over the past four years, Lombardi points out.
"Why are we discounting this kid?" he asks. If they use the theory espoused by some that inclusion should be based on current level of play and body of work, "This kid's right up there with Duncan Keith in terms of points over the past four years."
He finishes with a very salient point:
"If this kid was playing in New York, would we be embarrassed not to take him?" Lombardi asks rhetorically, a query he will repeat several times during the meeting.
"You guys I totally respect," Lombardi adds, finishing his presentation. "There are some holes in his game, but can we afford to pass on the highest-scoring American in the last four years?"
Yet, Brian Burke is there to kill the hopes for Yandle making the roster.
"I always assume a disaster's going to happen," he says.
What happens if Paul Martin goes down on the first shift of the first game?
"Who plays those minutes?" Burke asks.
"If Keith Yandle goes in our top four, I think everyone we play is excited," Burke says.
There are many ridiculous statements in these four lines, but the ones directly about Yandle are almost comical. Burke did a wonderful job of making himself look terrible during this process. The Burnside article in particular makes it seem as if Burke didn't even read the report.
Glancing at the voluminous report, Burke quips, "Why don't we read the New Testament instead?"
"I thought it was 'Gone With The Wind,'" Burke says.
These two comments taken together with the opinions attributed to Burke make the otherwise solid process look Mickey Mouse.
Brian Burke runs an NHL hockey Team and thinks Jack Johnson is a better hockey player than Bobby Ryan and Keith Yandle. Let that sink in— Jibblescribbits (@Jibblescribbits) January 1, 2014
What does it say about USA Hockey that a guy who's just won a Cup And did homework - Lombardi on Yandle - gets shouted down by Brian Burke?— Dennis King (@DKingBH) January 1, 2014
@DKingBH All 3 guys who were bad-mouthed by Burke in that article -- Buff, Yandle, Ryan -- got omitted. Bully boy still owns the room.— Bruce McCurdy (@BruceMcCurdy) January 1, 2014
The last Tweet is the point that I think needs to be made the most. The three players trashed by Burke in those articles are the three biggest snubs from the roster. Team USA isn't as strong as it could be, and that hurts all of us who want to see America bring home the gold. The logic that led to these three not making it is strange as evidenced above.
This is still a team capable of winning a medal, but it's going to be more difficult than it needs to be. One thing that is definitely true is that the chances of any reporters ever being asked to do this again are slim despite the fact that all they did was report what was said. It makes you wonder what they DIDN'T report.